Neville Fletcher was born in Armidale, NSW in 1930. He was educated at Armidale Demonstration School (1935-41) and at Armidale High School (1942-46). He attended New England University College, which was part of Sydney University, receiving a BSc in 1951. Fletcher then went to Harvard University where he gained a PhD in 1955 for his research on impurity levels in semiconductors.
Fletcher returned to Australia in 1956 to work in the Radiophysics Division of CSIRO. After 4 years at CSIRO, Fletcher moved to the University of New England where he was a senior lecturer in physics (1960-63) and then professor of physics (1963-83). Here his research interests included musical acoustics and studies on the physics of ice and water.
In 1983 Fletcher was appointed director of CSIRO's Institute of Physical Sciences, a position he held until 1987. When he completed his term as director, he remained at CSIRO as a chief research scientist until 1995.
Interviewed by Professor David Craig in 1999.
May we begin by talking about your family background?
I am descended from a lot of Methodist clergymen on one side and Irish convicts on the other, which makes life interesting. My bit of the Fletcher family, when they came to Australia via New Zealand in about the 1860s, were not themselves Methodist clergymen but did have a strong Methodist background. The other side of my family were Moffatts, from England, and Ryans and Glasses, both from Ireland. In the 1840s the ‘Fighting Ryans’ had a battle with another family on the way home from the country fair and one of the other family got killed, so seven Ryan cousins got transported to Australia for seven years. Then Bridget Ryan came out to Australia when her brother Malachy was on his ticket-of-leave, she married a Moffatt who was from England, and those are where my maternal family comes from.
You had a celebrated forebear, William Horner. Can you tell us about him?
William Horner was a schoolmaster; with his own school in Somerset. One of his sons was a Methodist missionary in the same place as a Fletcher who was also a Methodist minister. My Fletcher ancestor got ill, they went back home to England, and he subsequently married his friend’s sister, Mary Horner. So that’s where the Horners came into it. My grandfather gave all his children the name Horner and that went on to my generation.
The elder Horner, who would be something like my great-great-grandfather, was a mathematician – probably an amateur one, because he was basically a school headmaster – who in about 1816 published a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society about the finding of roots of polynomial equations. Indeed, his method is still used for computing these roots. And another Horner, as a young man, came to Sydney University in the 1880s as a lecturer in mathematics. Maybe my interest in things mathematical and physical has come down in my family.
Where were you at school?
I went to a good school in Armidale, a small town in those days. It called itself a cathedral city because it did have two cathedrals, but the population was only 7,000. I went to Armidale Demonstration School – so named because of the Teachers’ College which had been opened in 1928 on the hill above Armidale. The close connection between the school and the college meant we had good teachers and a few educational experiments going on. We learned interesting things like bookbinding and paper-making as well as standard things. Then it was on to Armidale High School.
What got you started in science?
I guess I was always interested in things mechanical and electrical. From primary school age I remember little steam engines and things that we seem to have got from somewhere. In high school I became interested in electricity and radios – crystal sets and so on. Of course, in those days radios were nice macroscopic things: you could hold the valves, they were all put together by bits of wire wrapped around terminals and so on. And out of one’s pocket-money one could buy old, derelict radios and get bits to be put together to make other radios. I thought it would be nice to be a radio engineer but the university in Armidale had Science and Arts, not engineering, so I did physics and maths instead. In retrospect I think that was the right thing to do. I enjoyed physics and maths more than I would have enjoyed doing the nuts and bolts of engineering.
In the high school, did you have good teachers in physics and maths?
I remember my high school teachers as good teachers. Armidale was an educational place even in those days. The university college had started in 1938, so by the time I started high school in 1941 there were people doing a diploma of education and things of that sort. My teachers certainly encouraged me. Because I was good at maths, particularly, they used to let me sit up the back of the room and do my maths honours sums while the other people were doing the standard work in the front.
Your next move was to university.
That’s right. The university college at Armidale was part of Sydney University, having been established just
outside Armidale in ‘Booloominbah’, a beautiful big mansion donated to the university specifically for the purpose. It had been built in 1888. By the time I was interested in going to university, in 1947, there were just under 200 students there and about 30 people on the staff. It was the obvious place to go. We were very lucky. Although there were not many staff, they were very good. Jack Somerville, who was head of physics and mathematics, had done very well at Sydney University and then gone to Cambridge to do mathematics,
and I had the general feeling that the ultimate thing was to go to Cambridge and do mathematics.
We had to do Sydney University exams. I didn’t really get to know the Sydney University students at all except for Max Kelly, who was in my year when I actually went to Sydney for one term of maths honours. It was interesting to see how the main bit of Sydney worked.
You shared a Medal with Brian Robinson and Stewart Turner. Do you keep in touch with them still?
That was the Medal in Physics, which was the next year. Stewart is at ANU, and for a time I was in CSIRO Radiophysics, where Brian was. We keep more or less in touch and I see them now and then, although Brian not for a while.
You had your first contact with CSIRO as an undergraduate, I think.
Yes. Jack Somerville arranged for me to get a CSIRO summer scholarship, so I worked at what was then the National Standards Laboratory for about 10 or 12 weeks over the summer vacation at the end of third year. I went back again at the end of fourth year. Working there was really very nice. I got to know a lot of people, some of whom I have kept in touch with – Guy White was then a young research scientist, and Alan Harper subsequently led Australia’s change to the metric system.
What were you working on then?
Rather strangely, I had been given a project related to the cloud physics effort that was going on in Radiophysics, which was at the other end of the building. The idea was to look into the production of ice crystals by firing dry ice pellets through clouds and collecting the little crystals. I don’t know that we found out anything very earth-shattering about what was going on.
I got a fellowship to go to Harvard after that but before I went I had a little eight months or so at the end of my undergraduate degree when I was actually able to do some research projects for Jack Somerville. He was working on transient arcs, ‘transient’ meaning things that lasted five, 10, up to 100 microseconds. They were tiny arcs, a few tenths of a millimetre across, which would just expand, and he was interested in the way they did so. I built a Kerr cell camera, a multiple-cell camera that would take three photographs, each about a microsecond in exposure, which I could spread over a couple of hundred microseconds to watch this tiny arc expanding. That was interesting, but it was my last such contact with ‘arcs and sparks’.
How did it happen that you went to Harvard?
At the end of undergraduate work I had applied for all the scholarships that came up – a scholarship at Cambridge, in England, because that was where one thought of going, and also a Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship in Harvard. Frank Knox had been Secretary to the Navy for Roosevelt and his widow established these fellowships in his honour, initially to bring English people to America on study visits to get degrees at Harvard. Later, other bits of the Commonwealth came in, and this was the first year Australia had a go. I was lucky enough to get it. Dr Madgwick, who was the warden of the University College in Armidale, said he thought the thing that gave me a little edge, when everyone who applied had a University Medal, first-class honours and so on, was that I played the flute, playing concertos with the orchestra and so on.
That one-year Frank Knox Fellowship to Harvard got me there and carried with it a Fulbright grant which paid the fares, so I was set up for a year. After that I got a CSIRO studentship for one year, and the third year I actually worked for a living, four days a week, finishing my thesis in the rest of the time.
What were the highlights of your Harvard period?
Harvard, like other American universities, always had coursework requirements, and we got very good coursework. I just did it for one year, during which we had people like Schwinger, who got the Nobel Prize for quantum electrodynamics, and Norman Ramsey, who talked to us about nuclear physics (he subsequently got a Nobel Prize as well), with other exciting people around like Pound, Purcell and so on. They gave good lecture courses and you had a really wide spread of things you could do. It was an excellent environment.
I decided to do a theoretical thesis, partly because I was probably going to have to do the second year slightly part-time, when it would have been hard to do an experimental sort of thesis. Making use of my background in maths and physics I worked with Harvey Brooks, who was a theoretician, and did a thesis about impurity levels in semiconductors. During the second year, 1953, I had a part-time job as a research engineer at a factory that not only made transistors but actually had a research laboratory as well, transistors being pretty new – they were only invented in ’49 or thereabouts. That was great and kept things going, and in third year I worked four days a week in this factory. I was called Assistant Director of Development, which was a really nice title, and it was even nicer that for my four days they paid me twice what I was getting on the Frank Knox Fellowship and I could have a few trips for the company and so on.
I was developing power transistors, which were new in those days. I think the most powerful transistor you could buy anywhere was about 100 milliwatts, but the ones I developed got up to about 2½ watts, so it was a reasonably big step. I got a patent on that and was able to use the basic work as another bit of my thesis.
I think you were married in Harvard.
Yes. Eunice, my wife, was from Maitland. We were in the same year at Armidale, where she did languages. We got to meet each other through the Methodist Church, because though my bit of the family weren’t clergymen-like, they were staunch Methodists and I got into the habit of going to church every Sunday, and Eunice’s family were also Methodists. Ultimately I played the organ and we both sang in the choir, and things like that.
Would you say you were a staunch Methodist?
Um, no. I can’t remember any time when I actually believed in God. I suppose I didn’t think of it for a long time. I was staunch in that I had to go to Sunday School – where I seem to remember having arguments with people – and to church, and I enjoyed the music. I still enjoy the music, and the architecture of cathedrals when I have seen them in England, but I can’t say I have ever been a religious person.
Well, at the end of Eunice’s degree she became a schoolteacher, teaching French and German. I went off to America, initially for a year, but when I discovered I could stay on longer, she threw in the schoolteaching job and came to America. We were married in Harvard University chapel, which was very pleasant, and had another two years in America together.
What do your children do now?
The eldest one, Robin, was particularly interested in Japanese. She went to Japan for a year at the end of high school, and then did a degree in Asian studies at ANU and worked in the Japan Secretariat at Foreign Affairs and so on for a year or two. Then she married Ben Schutte, a biologist from ANU, and they lived in Melbourne for a while when Ben was doing a degree in chiropractic. They are now back in Canberra with our two grandsons. The second daughter, Anne, did biological sciences at ANU and then went to Melbourne. Now, having been a laboratory manager for the Macfarlane Burnet Medical Centre, she is resources manager in biological sciences at Monash University. And our son John, the youngest of the three, did engineering at the University of New South Wales and worked then for Fairlight, which made music and video synthesisers. He had a great time but when Fairlight fell on slightly hard times he went into a communications company, JNA Technology – which has now been taken over by Bell Labs – where he makes multiplexers and such things for Telecom and others. John is married to a lawyer called Kelly and they have two daughters. So we have two grandsons and two granddaughters.
After your PhD in Harvard you came back to Sydney to join CSIRO.
I came back to work in the Radiophysics Division, which had developed from wartime radar to radioastronomy, cloud physics, computers – it had the first computer in Australia, CSIRAC. Radiophysics was at the other end of the building where I had worked in the National Measurement Lab during the long vacation a couple of times and so I knew what was going on there. In fact, it was the Chief of the Division, Taffy Bowen, who organised a studentship for me at Harvard for a while when I became involved in transistors. So it seemed natural in 1956 to go back there.
At first, being in Sydney was pretty grim. It was awfully hard to get a place to live and we ended up having one room, use of kitchen and bath, with an old lady who was going senile. We were actually applying for an immigrant visa to go back and live in America, I was talking to people at General Electric about jobs and so on, and we probably would have gone, except the waiting list for an immigrant visa from Australia was 10 years. But by a year later we had a house to live in, and our first daughter, and things were fine.
In the Radiophysics Lab I worked initially on transistors. AWA was just getting into the transistor business and CSIRO was working altruistically – as it did for Australian industry in those days – developing background in transistor physics. Lou Davies was running our little group, in which Brian Cooper was also involved on the more electronic side. We grew crystals, made transistors and developed different sorts of things. I worked on things such as high-current diodes and high-power transistors, as I had been doing in America, and we made some progress with them.
When I had worked in the Transistor Group for a bit under two years, AWA bought a turnkey operation – from America, I guess – for their transistor manufacture and no longer needed the Australian research. Taffy Bowen decided to close down the group and ‘redeploy’ everyone. (That was a good word even in those days.) He said to me, ‘Would you like to be a radioastronomer or a cloud physicist? Tell me on Monday.’
Cloud physics looked interesting because there were microphysical problems about nucleation and growth of ice crystals. I didn’t really want to be a radioastronomer – they spent all their time out in the field, at night and so on. I remember either Bernie Mills or Chris Christiansen saying that as far as radioastronomy went, ‘PhD’ meant ‘Post-hole Digger’. I wasn’t really keen on that. So being redeployed to cloud physics was good, because ice is a very interesting substance. As an odd coincidence, the crystal structure of ice is very much like that of germanium and silicon, out of which you make transistors. It is even a semiconducting material, but with protons carrying the current instead of electrons.
I got involved with the nucleation process. Clouds are water droplets, which are very tiny – 10 microns or so in diameter – and hence colloidally stable. They just go round each other, they don’t collide and form raindrops except in maritime clouds, which have fewer but bigger droplets in them and can produce shower rain. The big clouds that develop over the continent have tiny drops which are stable. For rain, the cloud has to grow up so that the top gets ice crystals in it. The ice crystals are more stable at temperatures way below zero Celsius, where they grow until they fall down, gradually become drops, collect more things and fall out the bottom. So the crucial stage is getting ice crystals in the top.
The idea of rainmaking was to inject ice crystals artificially, one way being to drop lumps of dry ice through at minus 80ºC and cause freezing of the droplets at whatever temperature there happened to be below zero. (In the ordinary course of events they wouldn’t begin to freeze much until minus 20, 30 or so.) The other way was to put silver iodide smoke into the cloud. Silver iodide is another material that has a crystal structure very much like ice, and this structure will cause water drops to freeze at minus 4 or thereabouts, forming ice crystals so that the rain process can go on. Interestingly, this science-fiction-like silver iodide effect was found by Bernie Vonnegut, who worked for General Electric in the United States and whose brother, Kurt Vonnegut, is a famous science fiction author.
I was concerned with the process by which silver iodide nucleates these ice crystals from water drops. For a couple of years I managed to do a lot of interesting things and get some handle on just what was going on, and Taffy got me started on writing a book about ice and water and clouds. But there was an increasing emphasis on field experiments, because all this theory wasn’t much good unless you went out and actually made clouds rain. I wasn’t keen on seeding clouds, collecting the statistics and so on, just as I hadn’t wanted to be a radioastronomer digging post-holes. So I began to look around for something else to do, giving up on cloud physics and the CSIRO at the beginning of 1960.
Do you have any recollections of Lou Davies at CSIRO at that time?
Yes. Lou was far-sighted. His particular interest was trying to develop very thin germanium coatings on glass, with the idea that they could make solar cells. That’s hard to do – the glass is amorphous, you only get microcrystalline cells and so on – but it is the way people are beginning to do it now. When the Transistor Group was dissolved, Lou went to AWA to head up their research department and became Chief Scientist there, so his expertise in the semiconductor field was transferred to industry in that way and not lost to Australia.
And Chris Christiansen?
Chris and Bernie Mills were around all the time but they both left CSIRO fairly shortly after I did, I think partly because they had their own particular instruments – Chris had the Chris Cross, a set of antennas (dishes) arranged in a cross, and Bernie had the Mills Cross – but Taffy Bowen was interested in having one big parabolic telescope, the Parkes Telescope. After a decision about what was possible, Paul Wild went on developing the radioheliograph; Taffy, with Frank Kerr and other people, went on with the development of the Parkes Telescope; and in the early 1960s Bernie and Chris moved to Sydney University, where they were able to get money to build up their particular instruments. In retrospect that was probably quite good, because Australia got not only the big paraboloid, which has certainly been most valuable, and Paul’s radioheliograph, but also Chris’s and Bernie’s telescopes – a great diversity.
Changing career, you went back to Armidale.
That’s right. I applied to ANU for a senior lectureship that had been advertised, and came up for an interview. One of the people I had asked to be a referee was Jack Somerville, at the University of New England. (The university college had become a full-fledged university in 1954.) He wrote a reference but at the same time he sent me a job offer for a position which had been advertised but not yet filled. So I went up to Armidale in 1960 – nominally to be a senior lecturer in theoretical physics, but with a free hand in just what I would do. I haven’t ever regretted my decision to go there.
The university still had only about 300 or 400 internal students, but it had a very large number of external students doing Arts – though not Science – degrees by correspondence. It was the first university in Australia to have such a distance learning arrangement, which had been a condition of its establishment. A new physics building started being built soon after I got there, to replace a big science building that fortunately, perhaps, burnt down. It had been built just after the war with the Commonwealth reconstruction training scheme as a horrible corrugated fibro, two-storeys-and-a-basement thing, similar to one still being used at Sydney University.
I did a little bit for the arcs and sparks people but basically I wanted to follow up some things which I had found out about ice as a solid-state material but which I hadn’t really had time for at CSIRO. The ice research began to build up and after a year or two I put in for a grant from the US National Science Foundation. I had been interested in the surface of ice, which is funny – you can ski on it, you can skate on it, it’s sort of slippery, whereas you can’t ski and skate on sand, for example. Like Michael Faraday I thought ice surfaces had a liquid layer on them, and I worked out a theory for just why, from the molecular thermodynamics point of view, an ice crystal ought to have a liquid layer at a temperature below the freezing point. I worked out also how thick it ought to be: only 10 to 100 molecular layers, just enough to make a difference. Having thought of some ways that one could investigate that experimentally, I applied to the National Science Foundation as about the only place you might get money, and I got enough money to appoint a research fellow and have a PhD student working on the project.
When I got this grant, the local newspaper asked me what it was about, so I said, ‘Well, now, ice is a funny sort of substance: it’s slippery on the surface. I’m interested in investigating this slippery layer.’ The little thing that appeared in the local paper got picked up with a bigger slab in the Sydney papers, because it was unusual to get money from America in those days, and ‘slippery ice’ was kind of interesting. Then someone sent me a clipping from an American newspaper that had picked it up: ‘I see that the National Science Foundation have given some clown in Australia $10,000 to tell them why ice is slippery. For one quarter of that amount, I’m willing to tell them why water is wet.’ I learnt that you have to be a bit careful what you say to the media!
You did most of your science at the University of New England, including work on the physics of music. Would you tell us about that?
In 1966, after quite a long time in Armidale working on solid-state physics I got a grant from the Australian Research Grants Committee (which later became the Australian Research Council) for more work on ice. Then I broadened that to ice and related materials, a reasonably big program in which I suppose half a dozen people did PhDs with me. That initial grant was made in the ARGC’s first year of operation, and I had either one or two grants from them throughout the whole of the time I was at New England, which was very nice of them.
ARGC/ARC will support anything if you can persuade them that it is worth doing, you are able to do it, and it is interesting and exciting. I managed to persuade them that there were some interesting and exciting things to do in musical acoustics, and that I was the right person to do them. So in 1972 I got a grant from ARGC to start doing some work in musical acoustics, particularly organ pipes. People had been building organs for maybe 2000 years – the Romans had things about like that – yet when you looked at it carefully you still didn’t know exactly how an organ pipe worked, just how it produced the sound. And if you really know how, say, an organ pipe works, that means if someone gives you the dimensions of it and tells you how hard you are blowing it, you ought to be able to calculate what it will sound like. If you can’t do that, you don’t really understand it. So the objective was to find out in detail how these things worked.
That expanded to organ pipes, flutes, other sorts of musical instruments, and again it turned out to be something that students were interested in. I had four students who did PhDs in musical acoustics. You might say, ‘What’s the use of a PhD in that field? There aren’t many jobs in that.’ And that’s true, but all these people have found jobs in which they have used the general sort of classical physics that you get in musical acoustics. Suszanne Thwaites is in charge of the acoustics section at National Measurement Laboratory; John Martin, in Queensland, is in charge of technology for the Education Department; and Kathy Legge is a senior lecturer in instrumentation at La Trobe University, in Bendigo. Only Richard Parncutt has kept on in the field, continuing his psycho-acoustics at an English university.
That is how I started doing musical acoustics, and I have gone on doing it. I have gone on doing some things about solid-state physics too, even some things about ice, keeping all these trails going a little bit, but for the last 10 or 15 years most of my interest has been in various aspects of acoustics. It had the slight advantage, when I left New England to go to CSIRO, that it was the sort of thing that I could do in such spare time as I had on the weekends, unlike something that involved a lot of lab work.
Of your many awards, which include fellowship of two academies and membership in the Order of Australia, the Silver Medal of the American Acoustical Society is particularly interesting. Can you say something about it?
As well as my research, the award arose from the writing of a fat book (about 760 pages) on the physics of musical instruments. I wrote it with Tom Rossing, an American colleague, and it is thick with mathematics. I really thought it was too mathematical for anyone to want to buy it, but there have turned out to be hordes of mathematicians, engineers and physicists who are also interested in musical instruments, so this book has sold like hot cakes. It is produced by Springer-Verlag in New York, and after several reprintings and a soft-cover issue, it has gone through now into the second edition – which itself has been reprinted after only about eight months. It is something that physical science people are really interested in.
I might interpolate that I also wrote a book about biological acoustics, which is not nearly as thick with mathematics but seems to be thick enough to frighten off the biologists, who have been not buying it in droves!
The American Acoustical Society gives out a few particular medals, the Gold Medal being for service to the Society. There are five or six Silver Medals in various areas of acoustics, and just last year I was honoured by being given the Silver Medal for musical acoustics. That has been given about 12 times before in the history of the Society, and it really is an honour to have my name up among those others.
Doing musical acoustics might be said to arise from your having a long history of interest in music, as do many physicists. Would you sketch that career for us?
When I was just six or seven I learnt the piano, on which I got to be moderately competent without really liking to play it. But then Victor McMahon started school flute bands, with little five-key flutes. After being the flute player for Dame Clara Butt and eventually playing in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, he went to the Department of Education to be in charge of school music. All sorts of people, including Don Burrows, got started with school flute bands. I liked the school flute.
Then Lois Kesteven started the Armidale Municipal Orchestra. Being the best of the kids playing the flute at the Demonstration School, I got in the orchestra to play the flute – an E flat flute, actually, so all the music had to be transposed for me to play it. I went on with the flute, later getting a seven-key one in C which would play standard flute music and finally graduating to a proper flute, with keys all along it. During the summer vacations I went to Sydney and usually had one or two lessons there from Victor McMahon. It was great.
In Harvard was there a musical life that you took part in?
Yes. I played the flute in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, a very good orchestra named partly for the girls’ college. It actually came from a society with a glorious name, the Pierian Sodality of 1808. (I gather a sodality is something like a friendship society.) This orchestra was big, it was competitive to get in, we had very good conductors – people like the concert master of the Boston Symphony would come and conduct us for a concert – and we went on tours to Washington and so on. They had very good people, and it was really great. I played a concerto with them and I had some flute lessons from James Pappoutsakis, in the Boston Symphony, but I didn’t get involved formally with any lectures. Actually, I did get to be a good flute player.
I have also played the organ. In the Methodist church in Armidale we had a really good 'Father' Willis organ from 1879 that had been originally built for St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Sydney but had come to Armidale around the 1930s. I got organ lessons from Tom Brown, one of the very good organists we had in Armidale, and I became a moderate sort of organist, playing the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and things like that. I would play with a lot of verve but with occasional wrong notes, I’m afraid. I played the organ in a couple of churches in America, too.
When I came back to Sydney I played the flute in the Pro Musica Orchestra at Sydney University, and then in Armidale I got back to playing the organ a bit and the flute; I also taught flute. When we got a music department started at the university I did some tutoring of the students who were doing flute. That was really interesting. Music has always been central to what I’ve been doing.
I did get involved with a few other instruments. When our elder daughter wanted to play the oboe, we got one and I taught myself how to play it so that I could teach her. The second daughter then wanted to play the clarinet, but thank goodness there was a clarinet teacher in Armidale and I didn’t have to learn to play that. And our son wanted to play the bassoon, so we got one of those and I taught myself how to play it and then taught him. He turned out to be a very good bassoon player, playing in orchestras in Sydney and so on.
In New England you were appointed a personal professor. How did that come about?
That was in 1963, when I’d been in Armidale for about three years. I was happy, having had two job offers at that stage from America – despite my failure to get an immigrant visa 10 years before. Shockley Transistor Products, in Silicon Valley, had rung up to offer me a job there, and Clevite, the people I had worked for previously, had also offered me a job. And so I was feeling a bit swell-headed, I suppose. Having been three years in Armidale as senior lecturer, I decided that maybe I should apply to become an associate professor, which you were allowed to do after three years. So I told Jack Somerville, the head of the department, that I was thinking of putting that in. He said, ‘Ah yes, well, don’t do anything for a little while and we’ll just see.’ I didn’t know what he meant by that, but it turned out that he was going to propose me for a Personal Chair.
Just before anything further happened, I got a job offer from the State University of New York, for a Chair in cloud physics. I wasn’t really interested in going back to cloud physics but it was nice to have that telegram – the longest one I’d ever seen. (Telegrams used to come out on teleprinters and this one had many pages, stuck together.) I guess that clinched things: I got appointed to a Personal Chair in physics, the first Personal Chair appointment at New England and the only one for the next eight or 10 years. Unfortunately, Jack Somerville died about a year after that. I then ran the department for a little while but when Syd Haydon, who was associate professor, was appointed to Jack Somerville’s established Chair we used to take three years about in being head of department.
You had other administrative roles there, didn’t you, such as being Professorial Board Chairman.
Yes. I was Dean of the Faculty of Science for two years (they were all two-year elected terms), Chairman of the Professorial Board for a couple of years, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for four years which overlapped Professorial Board chairmanship. I had a close relationship with Zelman Cowen during his time as Vice-Chancellor, after which Alec Lazenby took over from him.
You had a hand in the Department of Music, didn’t you?
That would have been while I was Chairman of the Professorial Board. A department of drama had recently been established at the university and was doing well, so I pushed for a department of music there too, and people agreed. Cecil Hill came from England to start that department up and it was very successful. It had a lot of students and it dealt in practical music, musicology, history, composition and all the things that a music department ought to deal with. Cecil was really devoted to the department but when eventually the Chair in music was advertised he didn’t get it and he left the department. He had had trouble getting on with other people, but, to be fair, there were people of influence in the Faculty of Arts who thought that playing musical instruments was a bit unacademic and all you ought to do was to write papers about it. Nevertheless, he has left a good memorial behind him.
And then you went back to CSIRO, in a senior post as Director of the Institute of Physical Sciences.
Yes. We went to Armidale in 1960, and in the early 1980s we began to wonder whether to stay in Armidale for ever or to go somewhere else. ‘If we are going to go somewhere else,’ we thought, ‘we need to go soonish.’ In your 50s you can still hope to move, but if you leave it till your 60s, no, making a move is very difficult.
As it turned out, in about 1980 I received an unexpected phone call from Paul Wild, who was then Chairman of CSIRO, offering me the position of Director of the Institute of Physical Sciences. That was one of the five institutes into which CSIRO had just been reorganised. The position looked very attractive but I had not yet decided it was time to leave Armidale and so I ummed and aahed, eventually saying no. I guess I just had cold feet; I wasn’t really sure about taking the plunge. But over the next couple of years I began to wonder whether I had made a mistake and should have taken that opportunity.
John Philip took the job of Director of the Institute but meant to do it for a limited time only, and in about 1982 the position was advertised again. I applied for it this time, it was offered to me and I took it. So at the beginning of 1983 I came back to CSIRO, but in Canberra, which was actually the sort of place we’d always thought would be great to live in. We didn’t really want to live in Sydney again. We had left there in the first place because travelling between Caringbah (near Cronulla) and the Radiophysics Laboratory at Sydney University by train, walking at the two ends, took me about an hour and 10 minutes, and when Radiophysics got moved up to Epping it was going to take nearly 2½ hours to get there. I wasn’t aiming to have four to five hours’ travel every day. If we were going to leave Armidale, the places that were attractive were Canberra and Adelaide, and to come to Canberra seemed great.
The new position was a complete change for me. Despite my previous role as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor and so on, here I would be doing administration and management full-time. It was fun and enjoyable, actually. I had a good start. Rosalind Dubs was Institute secretary and I had a couple of other good people working with me. Paul Wild was Chairman and towards the end Keith Boardman took over. They were five good years but, after the Institutes were reorganised to be much more industry-focused, I didn’t really know that I wanted to go on as Director.
I guess I could have thought of going on to be director of the Environment part of CSIRO, but I didn’t really know about the biological aspects. I put in a token application for Information Technology, which again I didn’t know a lot about, but I knew Bob Frater was interested in that and I was rather relieved when he got it. I had discussed with CSIRO a fall-back position that I could go on being a Chief Research Scientist, staying on in Canberra rather than going to Radiophysics or Applied Physics in Sydney, or to Chemical Physics or something of that sort in Melbourne. So I stayed on in Canberra, with an office at ANU, and did collaborative work with people in those other divisions. That worked out very well and I got quite a lot of things done, one way and another.
From your strong university background and then the CSIRO connection, how would you sum up the relationship between university-type fundamental research and applications to industrial innovation?
When I started off in CSIRO, the long-term view was towards helping Australian industry. That was what it was all about. But in parallel with that there was a lot of pretty fundamental research going on in various divisions. The universities weren’t doing a lot, at least in physics, even though Harry Messel came and stirred everything up in Sydney University in the mid-1950s, so CSIRO covered both the industry stuff and the long-term strategic research. In some divisions those were in pretty near equal quantities, but Chemical Physics, for instance, despite their success in developing atomic absorption spectroscopy and things like that, were a pretty fundamental division. Since that time the universities have changed. Because of the existence of ARGC and then ARC, they have been able to expand what they do in research and we now have two big forces in research: the universities on the one hand, and CSIRO on the other.
It made sense for CSIRO to go more towards the industry end of things, not to be involved much with basic research but certainly to keep on with what is now called strategic research, because if you concentrate on today’s problems you are not ready for the next decade’s problems. It takes decades to get things developed and into industry. CSIRO has to beware of focusing on problems that are too short-range. Certainly it should use its expertise to try and solve today’s problems, but the focus ought to be on what industry is going to be doing for the next 20 or 30 years, asking what is the technology that is going to be needed.
If CSIRO is taking that role, it is up to the universities to concentrate on the strategic and fundamental end of the scale. Otherwise, there will be nobody to do that. Sure, in the university scene you are going to discover things that can be useful to industry, maybe things that can start up a new bit of industry. People in universities should follow those up and try to build them into something, try to transfer them to industry. But that ought to be a spin-off, not the main rotating wheel that keeps everything going. There is perhaps too much of a push these days towards universities getting industry funding for most of what they do. It is good to get some industry funding, but the primary job in the universities is to understand where things go in the long term.
The cooperative research centre system started in 1991. Did you observe any impact?
By the 1990s there had not been much getting together as far as the universities were concerned, but it was beginning to happen. For instance, Bruce Cornell – a physicist who did NMR – was starting up the Australian Membrane Biotechnology Research Institute, AMBRI, at CSIRO Food Research. That was looking at making membrane biosensors to detect very small concentrations of material. It had several industries involved, such as AWA because of the microelectronics, various pharmaceutical-type industries, and Nucleus, the medical technology people who did the bionic ear, the heart pacemaker and so on. I was helping out with some things that I could do because of my background. As a combination of industry and CSIRO, with Sydney University and ANU involvement as well, it was a model cooperative research centre without being called one. Ultimately that became one of the cooperative research centres that the government started in the early 1990s. It ran its full seven years and looks like developing into something that could have a big commercial outcome for Australia.
Those CRCs have changed the way a lot of industrially-oriented research is carried out, although not only that sort of research is done – environmental, public-good sort of research is done by the atmospheric and some of the agricultural people and the Antarctic CRC, for instance. They have all brought interested users, mostly in industry but also public-good people, together with universities and CSIRO. That has been very good from many points of view. There are perhaps dangers, in that it tends to take a lot of very good people out of the universities because they get caught up with the way things are done in the CRC. There has to be a balance between CRC research, individual research in universities and team research. I guess I have always been an individual research man, doing things by myself or with one or two people. I had students working with me but I have almost never been part of a research team.
Meanwhile, you were engaging in the exciting sideline of learning to fly.
That’s right. I guess learning to fly is exciting. I didn’t like flying when I was youngish because I used to get sick, but the Armidale airport was on a hill just outside the town so we saw little aeroplanes flying around all the time. One day I went for a trial flight with John Brereton, a friend in the Zoology Department who had been a squadron leader flying Catalina long-range reconnaissance aircraft in the war and was chief instructor of the aeroclub. That got me hooked on the idea of small-aircraft flying so I joined the aeroclub, did all my training, and got a private pilot’s licence and even a night-flying instrument rating. That was great fun, and I actually made use of it a bit in teaching.
The first-year physics topic of things sliding down inclined planes with friction is important, straightforward and fairly easy but awfully dull. So in my first-year physics course, instead of the students looking at things sliding down rough inclined planes, we did aeroplanes. All the physics is the same but with lift and drag instead of the normal friction reaction, and you can work out what happens. They seemed to enjoy that. I wrote a little book about it, and for the informal term exam at the end of the course I gave a prize: a nice flight in the aeroplane for the people who came first, second and third. We would go out over the gorges and look at the country. I think they enjoyed that but some said maybe it should have been a punishment for the people who came last, second last and third last!
I enjoyed flying. I flew a few different sorts of aeroplanes, to various places, but not a huge amount. The real fun was learning to fly and taking short flights from Armidale down to the coast – a picturesque flight of an hour or so over the gorges down to the sea – especially with visitors. Then I had a heart attack and under the rules I had to give up flying for three years, at the end of which it really didn’t seem worth going back. Flying had got more expensive, I got more busy, and so on.
Actually, my heart attack came from playing golf (golf is bad for heart attacks). In Armidale there was by tradition a golf match every year between the academics and the technical staff in the department. The first time, I got around in 93 – which doesn’t sound too bad until you realise there were only nine holes. Next year I played golf and I got around in 86. I was improving. But I missed the next year. Then in the fourth year I played and had a heart attack. Obviously, if you are going to do this you have to do it regularly. I haven’t played golf since then.
Let us now turn in another direction. You have had a strong Academy of Science connection, in part as Secretary Physical Sciences. Would you tell us about that?
I was elected to the Academy in 1976, and within a couple of years I was put on the Academy Council, becoming Secretary for Physical Sciences shortly afterwards. I travelled down from Armidale to Canberra for meetings and so on but it was not until I came to CSIRO in ’83 that I could be closely involved in many other activities.
That was an interesting time, with lots of things going on. The Web of Life was established as a very successful school text in biology and people were contemplating other educational texts. Because these were mostly in the physical sciences – the chemistry one was under way and the geology one was also under development – I was aware of what was going on and talked to the people involved, but Jack Deeble used to look after those educational projects in his capacity as Director of Special Projects in the Academy.
Lloyd Evans was President of the Academy for my first couple of years, during which our main push was for interaction between the Academy and the scientific societies in New South Wales, with a big meeting at the Academy where a lot of the presidents and secretaries of the scientific societies talked to us about things we could do for science in general. The Federation of Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) has taken over the role of linking and furthering the aspirations of societies in a semi-political sense, but the Academy did develop close links with the societies. We have always had national committees and society representation, but it was good to have direct interaction with people on that occasion.
Arthur Birch then became President.
That’s right, yes. Arthur’s term as President coincided with the last couple of years of my term as Sec A. That was the beginning of a time of change and expansion for the Academy, whose secretariat offices were by then divided between the Dome and Canberra House, in Civic. Shortly afterwards we were able to acquire what was then Beauchamp House (now Ian Potter House), a lovely building next door. That made a huge difference to the Academy, but it happened after my days as Sec A.
Would you like to talk about the Academy’s primary school science project?
The Academy decided to follow its projects in senior secondary science with something for the primary school level, where attitudes and basic skills in science tend to develop. We felt that a whole-school approach was needed, to provide not just resource materials but a program that could be followed by primary school teachers who were not really familiar with science or technology and might lack confidence to teach it.
Luckily, BSCS, the people in America who had developed The Web of Life, had received about $7 million from the National Science Foundation to develop such a program. By about the stage at which I came in, the Academy had decided to adapt that program to Australian needs, as its approach was right and the experiment-based materials were very good. In each session the kids would begin with almost undirected play, experimenting a little bit to see what was going on. Then they would have the fundamental principles explained to them so they saw how it all fitted together; and, building on that, they would try something else. But we decided to change the areas covered. We would keep science and technology but the health part of the BSCS program was covered elsewhere, so we decided to replace it with environment – and particularly the Australian environment. We had an advisory committee of people from most of the State Education Departments and a team of experienced primary school teachers in Perth did some of the actual rewriting of the material, with Denis Goodrum, from Edith Cowan University, directing the project. Rewriting the materials in preliminary form took about a year.
My job included working in particular with Maureen Swanage, our Managing Editor, to make sure that materials flowed right and fitted together, to make sure that the science was right and to write some of the background science material for the schoolteachers, and then – with Maureen and Nancy Lane – to look at the general running of the total program.
The trial was really extensive and getting it going was a mighty exercise. We were aiming to have 30 schools in it, but when we called for expressions of interest we had 250 schools clamouring to be involved. That was great. We ended up picking about 36 and they ran the program for a year. We produced printed materials for their 600 teachers and 12,000 children, and kits of experimental equipment. Although the experimental equipment was basically straightforward things like magnets and eye-droppers, it might not have been easy for a school to find 30 eye-droppers and so the kits were all made up here – people came in during the school vacations and packed up the big boxes to go out to the schools. Even taking part in the trial required a pretty big commitment. Every teacher, and the headmaster and the librarian, had to give up some weekends to go to in-service courses. Schools had to use the materials for a whole year and then produce reports on them so that we could revise them.
On the basis of the feedback, the whole thing was rewritten. Some bits needed a lot of rewriting because the experiments didn’t quite work the way they were meant to; some of them were fine. We took care that the set of materials should be inclusive, showing the experiments and note-taking being done by both girls and boys, and with a mix of faces – some dark, some Asian-looking, some Caucasian-looking. And then the whole program got rolling. As well as supplying things for the teachers and workbooks for the kids, we’ve now got 300 experienced teachers around Australia who are trained to go out and give in-service courses. Also, small remote schools can buy videos to replace visits by trainers.
The program has worked extremely well and has gone a long way. We had hoped to have a quarter to a third of the schools in Australia using it within about 10 years, but it turns out that getting an exact figure is not as easy as counting the number of books bought for the children, because school budgets are so straitened that some schools buy only one copy and photocopy it. In Western Australia, where the project team was located, over 85 per cent of all the primary schools are using the materials. In Canberra it is over 80 per cent of all the schools. New South Wales and Victoria, unfortunately, are still down around the 25 per cent mark, partly because of strongly-held differences between those States about what ought to be in the syllabus. We are working on that. Altogether, around 3000 schools in Australia are using the materials, which is about at our target level. We will keep pressing on, because the program has had a remarkable effect.
Will something similar be needed for secondary school science?
It is going to be important, because students at the junior secondary level are beginning to be critical of what their elders do and again establishing attitudes. Developing a coordinated program for that level and getting it accepted could be more difficult than it was for the primary schools, where there was almost a blank field. At junior secondary level, different States and different teachers have firm ideas about what they want to do in science and technology. The Academy is putting together a consortium of people to look at it, and now that’s something for the next few years.
Neville, I’d like to thank you very much for all you have told us.
Thank you, David.
© 2017 Australian Academy of Science